Talking to a Past Self

I wouldn’t tell her, “you think you’re a boy, but you grow up to be a woman.”

So many trans people fantasize about the lives they might have had if they had recognized themselves earlier. It is difficult not to be wistful about fewer years spent in denial, wasting the potential of youth for a more expensive later transition that cannot match that potential. The unreal version of myself who did not have to endure a testosterone puberty at all…she is happier than I am. But that’s not the version I would have been if I had known myself better at 5 or 10 or 15 or even 20. My denial, back then, was protective. Being dissociated into oblivion back then kept me from feeling the pain and impatience that a hostile world would have imposed on the version of me who saw all of this coming. It kept me from being sent to religious leaders and “therapists” who would have tried to convince me otherwise, it kept my parents from trying more overtly abusive methods to try to make me into the “man” they imagined I needed to be, and it let me endure ordinary depressed-teenage-boy levels of violence instead of the far greater amounts I might have received as an out trans lesbian in a locale defined in large part by bourgeois Cuban-American social conservatism. I do not regret my denial. The fantasy of breaking it early must come with the far less realistic fantasy of also being able to act on that knowledge right away to hold any appeal at all. Without that addition, the idea of telling my younger self that I felt the way I did because I was wrong about my gender is a curse, not a blessing. I was better off not knowing.

So, what might I have said instead?

To my middle-school self, thrust into a new social environment a thousand miles away from the one she had known in the midst of a puberty she would later recognize as violently unwanted, I might offer:

Allow yourself more closeness with those two friends in those two groups you found. They’re less charismatic and nerdier than the ones you originally latched onto, and the noise of this chunk of your life hasn’t let you appreciate how much better a fit for your mind they are than the others. They certainly don’t deserve the casual, playfully mean derision you added to the heap your other friends placed on them.

You take high-school physical education the summer before entering high school out of a wild misapprehension of the requirements of your program, but it ends up being a useful experience, especially the part about weight training. Leave that girl alone, though. Seriously, leave her alone. Don’t look at her, don’t talk to her more than circumstances force, forget her as much as you can. If you didn’t think that reappearing in her life would at best be confusing and at worst a re-traumatization, you would be apologizing to her now. Leave her alone. You will have better memories of that semester if she isn’t in them.

Keeping in touch with the people from elementary school will feel important at first, but it will rapidly fade into irrelevance. They’re your past, and your future is ahead of you. Something is afoot that will bring some of them back into contact with you later. And you really don’t have to memorize that that girl’s birthday is 1 May.

To my high-school self, lonely, socially inept, and ever reaching for intimacy she would take decades more to know, I might offer:

Don’t get back with her. You’re both damaged in ways that do not so much complement as resonate. I don’t know whether the butterfly effect of you not spending that year with her, neglecting your friends and your own emotional health, will work out for you, but it’s a bad scene. Ending things with her early was a good move and getting back with her so soon thereafter was violence against your own boundaries. You’ll know what that phrase means in the future. She’s not worth it. Stay broken up. Focus on the other one. You know the one. You won’t forget her, and I’m very curious what might have been.

That one very good female friend you have? It never works out with her the way you want it to. You will make peace with that idea, eventually, and come to recognize that it would never have worked. She will marry someone neither of you has met yet. She will have children with him. You have an intuition that she’s patiently indulging you instead of truly thriving on some of the things you say and do to her, and you’re righter than you can imagine. This friendship is real, but so much of how it works at your end is just at your end, imagined into existence because she doesn’t stop you or tell you that you’re not as funny as you think you are, because acknowledging that reality yourself feels like giving up. Life will be better for you if you can tone down the static of wishful thinking in your mind and listen, really listen, to what her words and body language and everything else are saying.

The worst decisions you make in this part of your life are all because you are desperately lonely, and you are desperately lonely because you can tell that people don’t, indeed can’t, see any version of you that feels real. You can’t even see that version, and you won’t, for many years to come. But you do find that version. Things do get better for you. I won’t tell you to hang in there, because you were going to do that anyway. That’s one of your defining features, and a trait that will serve you well for the rest of your life: the emotional null where others’ despair response would reside.

And you do, eventually, get the resolution you need on those feelings and actions related to feminine clothing. Great things are ahead of you. Great, beautiful things.

To my bachelor’s-degree self, finally in an environment that feels right, stretched taut between adolescence and adulthood in a way her peers mostly started experiencing earlier than she did, unable to reconcile the present and the past, I can say:

Don’t pursue her. Which one am I talking about? Yes.

In many ways, this part of your life feels like a realization of all the promises your high-school experience didn’t keep. With that freedom comes responsibility that you take time to appreciate, and decisions you come to regard as lessons for your future self. You have a pattern of letting your wants cloud your ability to read other people. You sense this in yourself already, and it is a thought you fight because there is such incredible darkness behind it. Without that presumptuousness, you feel like you might never have intimate, affectionate touch of the sort you crave, let alone resolution of your various urges. You feel trapped between the lonesome chasm of your terror that this one will be the only one who can ever truly see you and your urgent wish to not be the kind of monster you know people see in you, and you feel helpless to resolve that contradiction. In my timeline, you don’t truly begin the work of undoing this flaw in yourself until graduate school. You can start earlier. You can grant yourself the grace required to imagine that more than one person could ever love you, and with that self-directed largesse, help them find you.

With all of that in mind, don’t call that girl 20 times in the 15 minutes that she was late for your walk through the FIU grounds. Don’t have that brief, ill-conceived dalliance with that woman ten years your senior who just broke up with a friend. Don’t repeatedly sext with that monogamous friend whose relationship you’re hoping will end in your favor. Don’t hit on your tutoring clients after sessions with such consistency that you’re mystified it didn’t lead to you being called into an office. Don’t hit on your sister’s friends, ever. That voice in your head that asks every time if this next move is a good idea? It is right to doubt you at this point in your life. You have so much growing to do, and I would enjoy my memories of this time more if so many of them did not involve this.

But it’s not all mistakes. You have cultivated a mastery of keeping secrets from your parents that will keep being protective for a decade to come. You have been collecting evidence of what happens when that instinct fails, or when you choose not to use it, and that evidence reinforces the solidity of this decision. You have found coping mechanisms that dull the pain of existence without imposing toxic costs you can’t pay, granting you a sense of control in your free time that you cannot access elsewhere. Some of the friends you’ve made or maintained here will last for years to come.

To my early grad-school self, claiming a first true taste of independence:

Listen to yourself. You’ve lived so long doing everything you could to not really hear what goes on inside your mind, but it’s time to start listening. Because this is when you’re finally in a position to start recognizing what you’ve been hiding from yourself and take the steps to come out into the light.

Learn to cook. Your parents gave you a start, but you are lacking some basic skills and the humility to even see what the problem is. You will eat better once you figure that out. You tried, but the internet of those days was not yet as easy to navigate as it is now. Keep trying.

You have more control over how you live this part of your life than you think you do. You will have a better time if you insist on using it, and on choosing your company with that autonomy in mind. I would be more specific, but you wouldn’t listen to me anyway. You’ll understand what I mean when you’re me.

And for my elementary-age self, whose struggles were beginning to show but would not yet have names for years to come, there is no story I could tell that would change anything. For that child, already aware of her impenetrable weirdness but with no knowledge of what it would ultimately mean, I can offer only the most soul-encompassing hug my decades of empathy can present, and the promise that the life ahead of this moment will come to contain the understanding she so craves.

Talking to a Past Self